» A minimal investment in rail between Chicago and St. Louis won’t get Americans excited about fast trains.
Since Congress approved $8 billion for high-speed rail in this year’s stimulus bill, Illinois has been pushing hard for improvements along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which they contend should be the first investment in a Midwest-wide network of fast railways. Now governors Pat Quinn (D) of Illinois and Jay Nixon (D) of Missouri are pledging to work together to fund the corridor connecting their two states. But for now, their efforts are focused on an anemic project that will ramp up speeds to only 110 mph, reducing the journey time between the two cities from five hours today to less than four. Mr. Nixon said yesterday that he’d like to eventually speed trains to 210 mph, but the $8 billion authorized for projects around the nation won’t be nearly enough to pay for such improvements.
Missouri Senator Kit Bond (R) asserted last week that the federal government’s plans for high-speed rail investment lacked vision, and pointed out that Washington would be better off finding a select few projects to fund fully. In a Senate subcommittee, he said “My concern is that… we will be spreading the money so thin and wide that we will have nothing to show for it.” Implicitly, he was arguing for investment in express high-speed rail in a select number of corridors at speeds above 150 mph, rather than a hodge-podge series of minor improvements along a number of corridors.
Mr. Bond raises a legitimate concern. If the line between these Midwest cities were improved, it still would be only slightly faster than travel by automobile — at a higher cost for passengers. No mass of people will choose to travel on trains between these cities if they take four hours to make the trip; the route is hardly competitive with car travel and much slower than air routes. A far-off promise for 210 mph trains is no promise at all.
Indeed, the Chicago-St. Louis line would be a legitimate candidate for a much greater investment on the scale of California’s 220 mph high-speed program. Compare the basics of the route with that of the Paris-Lyon TGV line, one of the most successful in the world:
|Chicago-St. Louis vs. Paris-Lyon
|Metro 1 Pop
|Metro 2 Pop
|City 1 Pop
|City 2 Pop
Both pairs of cities are roughly the same distance apart, and their respective metros and inner-city areas have similar populations; neither route has major population centers between the termini. Yet while TGVs take the trip between France’s capital and second city in two hours, Illinois and Missouri officials are promoting a rail system that will take four. The Chicago-St. Louis project lacks the appeal of the French line, and it will therefore be unable to ever produce the kind of ridership numbers that are now standard between Paris and Lyon. A 110 mph line will never make up its cost; conversely, a 210 mph line, with much higher ridership, could potentially break even.
The United States must get its investment in rail right from the start if we are to envision a long-term program of fast train projects, because we need to build public support for the program from the beginning. Spending a few billion dollars on a project that will only slightly improve commutes and attract few passengers is the wrong first step. Senator Bond has it right — we must find the resources to ensure that our initial investments will produce tangible, visible results; otherwise, in ten years, we’ll be calling high-speed rail yet another “failed” government program.